April 17, 2005

Taj Mahal: The tomb that swallowed my husband

Mike and I took a crowded public bus from Delhi to Agra, India and were deposited outside the high-walled entrance to the Taj Mahal. Before our feet hit the dirt parking lot, our faces were full of tiny Tajes – postcard images, plastic and metal die-cast trinkets, snowglobes – thrust into our faces by souvenir hawkers desperate to extract a few rupees before we disappeared to commune with the ghosts of Shah Jehan and Mumtaz Mahal. I have an impressive postcard collection, so I spread some joy and bought a few cards from each vendor.

We bought our tickets and passed through the site’s dark, ceilinged entrance gate. When the Taj appeared, framed by the gate’s red limestone arches, wonder coursed over and through me. I had never seen such ethereal beauty. The white marble colossus, conceived by Shah Jehan, the Mogul dynasty’s most ambitious builder as an everlasting testament to his love for Mumtaz, his favorite wife, who died shortly after bearing the emperor his fourteenth child, is floating stone.

One approaches the domed wonder slowly. Contemplating it is everything. Entering it is a sidebar. Indeed, we took what felt like hours to make our way from the entrance gate to the white walls of the fantasy tomb. We stood with groups of Indian sightseers at the base of the oblong reflecting pool that creates a second shimmery, liquid Taj. We sat on the the ground or grass beside the pool. We’d look, consider, sigh, then move a few feet and sit, look, consider and sigh again. We rested under trees, taking in the exquisite structure from different angles. When we changed position, the altered play of light would turn the facade from white to pearl, pink or purple. When we finally reached it, we marveled at and touched the intricate, lacy carvings and the brilliant patterns of inlaid stone that played like jewels on a fine lady’s porcelain neck. We circumnavigated the Taj, looking straight up at the delicate minarets that poked cool white holes in the blue-hot Indian sky. From the back of the Taj, we looked across the Yamuna River at Agra Fort, Shah Jehan’s home, which became his prison when his ambitious son, Aurangzeb, placed his ailing father under house arrest in the massive red stone bastion in 1658.

Shah Jehan spent the last years of his life gazing from his opulent prison to the Taj Mahal, just across the river but beyond reach. When Shah Jehan died in 1666, Aurangzeb installed him in the Taj next to Mumtaz. Shah Jehan had, historians say, planned to build a second Taj in black marble to house his own remains, but this dream was part of his undoing. The Taj Mahal, built from 1632 to 1648 by 20,000 laborers and craftsmen, had bankrupted the treasury, and Aurangzeb imprisoned his father partly to prevent such a financially insupportable ego-project from happening again. The white Taj had caused a hemorrhage of red ink. A second black Taj would, thought Aurangzeb, kill the dynasty. Better to lock dad up in the fort.

When we’d taken in as much sublime beauty as we could handle in a day and were fairly overdosing on artistic and architectural perfection, we turned to the more prosaic Taj-tourist activity – going into the burial chamber to view the imperial sarcophagi. I didn’t really want to go. I hate small, dark, crowded places, but in I went, Mike just ahead of me.

The press of humanity inside the hallway that became a shallow ramp sloping downward into the cavernous room where lay the sculpted, bejeweled marble coffins was more than I could bear. The temperature outside was near 90 degrees, the sun blinding and unrelenting. Here, in this thin passageway crammed with pilgrims and visitors in saris and silk, chiffon and cotton, the coolness of the structure’s marble was not enough to provide relief. We were sandwiched, hundreds strong, in this small space, padding slowly forward as a clammy, sweating, human unit. I lost Mike. His head of thick black hair was indistinguishable from the Indian heads in front me. I called out, “Mike! I can’t go down there. I’ll wait for you up here.”

I took up a position in a corner only a few yards from the point where viewers would walk up the burial chamber ramp and reenter the hallway. I couldn’t miss Mike. He’d have to walk right by me. After five minutes, I became annoyed. What was he doing down there? Was he playing with me, taking his time so I’d have to sit longer in this unpleasant, claustrophobic space? That would be unlike him, but everyone has weird moments, and India assuredly does interesting things to one’s brain. After ten minutes I became concerned. How long does it take to walk past a few coffins? He should be out by now.

I started to think about what to do. Should I go down after him? What if he came out just as I disappeared down the chute? He wouldn’t know where I was. I looked toward the door to the outside. Two Indian security guards were waving their arms at me, pointing out the door. I became indignant. They were trying to shoo me away! My husband was stuck somewhere in this dank maw of a tomb, and they wanted me to go sit somewhere else! I was hot, angry and unyielding. I shook my head at them and firmly sat my ground. For the next 10 minutes, they stared at me, cocked their heads toward the door and pointed the way out. I crossed my arms over my chest in the universal pose of defiance and continued to monitor the exit ramp. If they wanted me out, they’d have to drag me out.

After about an hour, I’d crossed from alarm to tears. Something had surely happened to Mike. I had to get help. I had to find the police. I imagined Mike had fallen and been trampled. Or robbed and left in a dark corner of the crypt. I picked myself up and made my way past the two pointing security guards. The second I stepped outside, I saw Mike sitting on a bench by the door. “Where have you been??!!” he shouted. “I’ve been sitting here waiting for you for over an hour! I thought you died in there!”

I turned to the security guards who were watching our reunion with lazy amusement. I shook my head at them. “You could see both of us from where you stand, yet you couldn’t walk a few feet to tell one of us where the other was! Shame on you.” My words made no impression. I like to cut people slack if there’s any hope of its being justified, so I walked away reasoning that perhaps their superior had commanded them not to leave their posts, and they were simply carrying out orders, to a ridiculous extreme.

We had tickets on an evening bus back to Delhi. If you’re a solo traveler in India, securing or confirming train, bus or plane tickets can be a day-long endurance event, and once you have your papers in hand, you don’t challenge the cosmic order by trying to change, return or otherwise mess with them. So, we had hours to kill. We spent the time in Shah Jehan’s quarters at Agra Fort, contemplating the view of the back side of the Taj from his perspective. It must have been heartbreaking to be him at the end of his life.

It was dark when the bus pulled out of Agra. I was still a bit keyed up by the inexplicable behavior of two grown men who’d watched Mike and me for an hour, yet had chosen to stand fixed in a doorway and do nothing more than point, but as soon as the bus turned the corner onto the trunk road to Delhi, I was soothed. By lights. A world of little, flickering lights.

It was Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights which, historically, welcomes King Rama home after his battle with the demon king of Lanka, but which, in modern times, has also become a celebration of happiness, prosperity and wishes for a good future. People shop, eat, give sweets, sport new clothes and jewelry and ask the gods to send good stuff their way in the coming year. Diwali is one of the longest festivals of the Hindu year, and it celebrates new ventures and good things ahead.

The most arresting and poignant symbol of Diwali is the diya, a small oil lamp, symbol of an illuminated mind. When the sun goes down, every household lights the dozens of diyas arrayed on and in doorsteps, windowsills, rooftops, garden walls, verandas, yards, driveways, walkways and courtyards. These are not the brash, artificial lights of an American Christmas. These are individual licks of live flame, held in tiny pots that spread across the countryside and turn India into a land of magic. The day’s chaos, dust, poverty and frustration evaporate in the yellow glow of millions of points of light.

(Know someone who celebrates Diwali? Check out this site, your one-stop shop for Diwali gifts. Some tempting sweets...)

Putting your summer reading pile together? Add Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America